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Pakistan and the United States Have Betrayed the Afghan People

Washington ignored Islamabad funding and supplying the Taliban. Now Afghans are paying the price.

By , a professor at Georgetown University’s security studies program within the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Taliban fighters stand guard.
Taliban fighters stand guard in a vehicle along the roadside in Kabul on Aug. 16. AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

U.S. President Joe Biden has defiantly asserted he does not regret his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan even as Kabul has fallen to the Taliban and as desperate Afghans scramble for the last flights out of the country. The United States is begging the Taliban for assurances they will not attack U.S. personnel as Washington scrambles to evacuate its personnel, leaving its long-standing Afghan partners to fend for themselves as the Taliban hunt them and their families down.

U.S. officials are busy offering sanctimonious repines that justify the U.S. exit. They have announced to U.S. and international audiences that the time has come for Afghan National Security Forces to seize the reins of their nation’s defense, that Afghan leaders must unite and fight for their country—that the United States has done enough. This is rank nonsense, and Biden knows it. The United States did not do enough—and even enabled the current onslaught.

Biden did not come to this situation unawares. The Obama administration in which Biden served benefited from a raft of experts, including former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel and longtime South Asia watcher Peter Lavoy, who was the national intelligence officer for South Asia. Prior to the 2008 election, there were numerous assessments about the Afghanistan War and the myriad ways in which Pakistan was undermining U.S. efforts there. Then-President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming team, led by Riedel, spearheaded the so-called “assessment of assessments” and offered refreshingly blunt insight into how Pakistan, which benefitted handsomely from U.S. emoluments, aided and abetted the Taliban and undermined U.S. efforts.

U.S. President Joe Biden has defiantly asserted he does not regret his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan even as Kabul has fallen to the Taliban and as desperate Afghans scramble for the last flights out of the country. The United States is begging the Taliban for assurances they will not attack U.S. personnel as Washington scrambles to evacuate its personnel, leaving its long-standing Afghan partners to fend for themselves as the Taliban hunt them and their families down.

U.S. officials are busy offering sanctimonious repines that justify the U.S. exit. They have announced to U.S. and international audiences that the time has come for Afghan National Security Forces to seize the reins of their nation’s defense, that Afghan leaders must unite and fight for their country—that the United States has done enough. This is rank nonsense, and Biden knows it. The United States did not do enough—and even enabled the current onslaught.

Biden did not come to this situation unawares. The Obama administration in which Biden served benefited from a raft of experts, including former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel and longtime South Asia watcher Peter Lavoy, who was the national intelligence officer for South Asia. Prior to the 2008 election, there were numerous assessments about the Afghanistan War and the myriad ways in which Pakistan was undermining U.S. efforts there. Then-President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming team, led by Riedel, spearheaded the so-called “assessment of assessments” and offered refreshingly blunt insight into how Pakistan, which benefitted handsomely from U.S. emoluments, aided and abetted the Taliban and undermined U.S. efforts.

Biden, like Obama, understands Pakistan is the major force behind the Taliban. Without Pakistan’s intelligence and military establishment’s unstinting support for the Taliban, the group would be a nuisance rather than an effective fighting force. The United States has steadfastly refused to do the one thing it could have done long ago: targeted sanctions against those in Pakistan’s deep state who sponsor Islamist militants.

Despite Pakistani authorities claiming al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was not in Pakistan for over a decade, he was found hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad, a leisurely stroll from Pakistan’s premier military academy. Mullah Omar, founder of the Taliban movement, likely died in a hospital in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Pakistan’s ties to the Jalaluddin Haqqani network have been known and enduring. During the last 20 years, Pakistan has continued to recruit, train, and mission numerous other Islamist terrorist groups operating in India and Afghanistan. It has feted terrorist leaders as national heroes. Pakistan even requested the United Nations permit Hafiz Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and an United Nations Security Council-designated terrorist, to access his frozen accounts for basic expenses.

The United States remained convinced Pakistan was too dangerous to sanction, too dangerous to punish, too dangerous to hold accountable. U.S. pundits rehearsed fears that Pakistan may collapse, provide nuclear weapons to terrorists, or provoke an escalatory and possibly nuclear war with India while it nursed its militant assets.

Pakistan did not begin its forays in Afghan affairs during the Soviet invasion and at U.S. prompting and funding. In fact, Pakistan has been using Islamist organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami to influence Afghan affairs since the 1950s. At the time, Pakistan had legitimate concerns: Afghanistan rejected Pakistan’s legitimacy and post-colonial borders, nursed Pashtun nationalism, and even invaded Pakistan in Balochistan and several Tribal Agencies.

Pakistan retaliated violently in 1973 when Islamists fled a Soviet-guided modernization program into Pakistan. In 1974, then-Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto established a cell of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s formidable intelligence agency, tasked with rendering effective militia groups for undertaking operations in Afghanistan. Long before the Russians crossed the Amu Darya in 1979, the ISI, working with Pakistan’s Frontier Corps, consolidated more than 50 resistance groups into seven major so-called mujahideen groups that would later fight the Soviet forces.

Americans consistently found expedient reasons to excuse Pakistani malfeasance. Without experiencing significant costs for its persistent efforts to squash Afghanistan’s emergence as a viable and independent state, Pakistan will continue along the same lines.

But Pakistan cannot be blamed alone. U.S. capacity-building efforts were always deeply inadequate. Soviet-controlled Afghanistan was a rentier state nearly completely dependent on Moscow. But Washington built a much larger Afghan state—and one even less capable of paying its bills.

The failure to create a functioning state was particularly catastrophic when it came to the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior Affairs, which controls the police. From the beginning, the United States and NATO partners struggled to develop efficacious training programs. Training concepts and doctrines changed often as different parts of the recruiting and training mission came under different contractors and national oversight. The United States consistently sought shortcuts, such as opting to train “Afghan local police,” which Afghans more accurately called militias. Unlike training Afghan police, which was more resource intensive and provided by contractors, training these militias was still dependent on contractors but less so. Americans tried to justify equipping militias by applying Afghan names to them, such as Arbaki, which implied these latest efforts were rooted in Afghan historical practices rather than a quick and dirty effort to make a reliable and accountable police force.

The United States was adamant the Afghan military use U.S. weapons rather than Russian weapons, which tend to be easier and far more cost effective to use, maintain, and resupply. Chronic illiteracy and innumeracy plagued these efforts. In contrast, Moscow trained thousands of civilian and military personnel either in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Ironically, many of the United States’ most effective Afghan partners were those who trained with the Soviets.

The United States insisted on the country’s security architecture but has retrenched from its willingness to pay for it. Since 2014, Washington has provided about 75 percent of the $5 billion to $6 billion per year needed to fund the Afghan National Security Forces while the remainder of the tab was picked up U.S. partner nations and the Afghan government. However, for fiscal year 2021, the U.S. Congress appropriated around $3 billion for Afghanistan’s fighting forces, the lowest amount since fiscal year 2008. This diminution of U.S. support came after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said his government cannot support its army for even six months without U.S. financial aid.

Although much of the U.S. expenditures pertained to defense, the United States has ostensibly invested in other sectors of Afghan governance. As of June 30, the United States has spent about $144.98 billion in funds for reconstruction and related activities in Afghanistan since fiscal year 2002, including $88.61 billion for security (including $4.6 billion for counternarcotic initiatives); $36.29 billion for governance and development (including $4.37 billion for counternarcotic initiatives); $4.18 billion for humanitarian aid; and $15.91 billion for agency operations.

Although these numbers are staggering, much of U.S. investment did not stay in Afghanistan. Because of heavy reliance on a complex ecosystem of defense contractors, Washington banditry, and aid contractors, between 80 and 90 percent of outlays actually returned to the U.S. economy. Of the 10 to 20 percent of the contracts that remained in the country, the United States rarely cared about the efficacy of the initiative. Although corruption is rife in Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction repeatedly identifies bewildering corruption by U.S. firms and individuals working in Afghanistan.

In many cases, U.S. firms even defrauded Afghans. In 2010, one military official with the International Security Assistance Force explained to New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall that “without being too dramatic, American contractors are contributing to fueling the insurgency.” As it neglected to tackle Pakistan and tried to do security on the cheap, Washington also strongarmed the Afghan government it into so-called “peace talks” with the Taliban. More than anyone, the Afghan government understood the Taliban and their Pakistani handlers could not be trusted to honor their commitments, such as they were.

The spectacle of the peace talks was important in Washington, which hoped to create a fiction of power transition to cover the process of a negotiated U.S. defeat. There was genuinely nothing to discuss: The Afghan government was committed to constitutional rule of law—including elections, howsoever problematic—while the Afghan Taliban were committed to overturning the constitution and opposed elections as non-Islamic. The Taliban used the spectacle of the peace process as a recuperative retreat to revivify and emplace their forces while stashing weapons as they awaited U.S. withdrawal.

As the sham of peace talks faltered in March 2020, the Trump administration threated to withhold $2 billion in assistance if the Afghan government didn’t return to the negotiation table. Equally appalling, the United States forced the Ghani government to release more than 5,000 hardened Taliban prisoners in return for hundreds of government officials taken captive by the Taliban. Many of these released prisoners are now leading the current offense. The United States also pressured Ghani to postpone or even cancel the 2019 presidential elections in a bid to mollify the Taliban’s demands that the government be dissolved as a condition of peace and be replaced with an interim government in which the Taliban had a stake, which Ghani rightly refused.

The United States walked out of Afghanistan in 1990 and made Pakistan the custodian of Afghanistan’s future. Today, it is repeating the same mistake. When the Taliban once again transform Afghanistan into a base of operations for modern Islamist terrorist organizations, Washington will only have itself to blame.

C. Christine Fair is a professor at Georgetown University’s security studies program within the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is the author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War and In Their Own Words: Understanding Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

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